Meet The Marketer: Katie Bisbee, CMO of DonorsChoose.org

DonorsChoose.org is one of the rare companies that was separately using Buddy Media, ExactTarget and Salesforce’s CRM platform, all before Salesforce eventually acquired and integrated those individual platforms to work with each other.

It’s no surprise then that DonorsChoose.org is one of Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud’s favorite customers to showcase, and it was at the unveiling of ExactTarget’s new Journey Builder tool where I met Katie Bisbee, DonorsChoose.org’s chief marketing officer.

DonorsChoose.org is a non-profit organization that helps public school teachers raise fund for supplies, projects and trips their schools don’t have their budget for. Adopting the crowd-funding model popularized by Kickstarter, DonorsChoose.org lets teachers from all over the country list their funding requests on the site, along with a goal of how much they need to raise. Donors visiting the site can then pick and choose a project or teacher they want to donate to. To date, DonorsChoose.org has raised over $248 million dollars to fund over 468,000 teachers’ requests.

As the CMO of a non-profit, Bisbee’s job is a little trickier compared to other marketers. She can’t promise customers a tangible, value-added product in exchange for their money. Instead, it’s her job to highlight what their money is doing for other people.

For Bisbee and her team, it’s not just enough to get donors visiting the site. Much of their efforts go into getting repeat donations and showcasing exactly what that money is achieving. To do this, they use a digital marketing strategy that relies heavily on email marketing, along with components of lead nurturing and social media.

The targeted email strategy

DonorsChoose.org’s marketing team uses ExactTarget to compose and send out highly targeted emails to attract donors. Bisbee says email has been an extremely effective tool for the company, and it takes up much of the digital marketing budget. “We haven’t found people to get tired of email,” says Bisbee. “The more we’re able to send, the more people fund classroom projects and the more we can raise money for kids.”

Bisbee says using ExactTarget’s targeted mailing capabilities have greatly increased the response rate on emails. “To break through the noise and to get people to care, you need to send them one project to fund, and it needs to be heavily personalized.”

This means targeting the email message according to a donor’s past donations, location and interests. For example, if a donor has historically only give to math and science-based projects in the past, or likes to donate only to schools located in their zip code, the targeted email only identifies a funding request that matches their previous behavior, increasing the likelihood of a donation.

For Bisbee, the “a-ha” moment came three years ago, when her team ran a test on their holiday mailing to donors.  One email was a generic blast soliciting donations for multiple projects, while another one contained only one project specifically tailored to the donor, with the subject line “A classroom that needs you.” The conversion rate on the second email was three times as much as the first.

In addition to soliciting donations, Bisbee’s team also uses email to send donors notes, thanking them and showing them the effects of their donation. This can include written testimonials from teachers or pictures and videos of the classroom projects that were successfully funded.

Bisbee is a big advocate for the ExactTarget platform, citing its excellent customer service, ease of use for non-technical personnel, and willingness of its team to incorporate feedback from customers into product updates. Sometimes those ideas can even come from competing platforms.

“Two years ago, we were pitched by one platform that had a really rudimentary version of Journey Builder,”says Bisbee “We thought it would be so cool if our marketing team could build a flow chart of interactions based on triggers from customer activity.” She told the ExactTarget team about the platform, who eventually incorporated the concept into the new Journey Builder. “The updated Journey Builder is even better than anything we could have had in mind,” says Bisbee. “ We can get so much more sophisticated! Right now we just have this huge Visio chart of everything we send and it’s kind of a mess.”

Integrating with Salesforce’s CRM platform

Much of the data that feeds into the emails comes from Salesforce’s CRM platform, which DonorsChoose.org uses to store crucial information on donors and the projects they support.  “Our marketing team is able to pull reports on people’s giving history and giving affinities out of Salesforce and suck it into ExactTarget,” says Bisbee, highlighting the advantages of the integration between the two solutions. “If all your donations have gone to science-based projects, a specific teacher, or a school near you, we can send you a personalized recommendation of the one project to fund.”

The social media strategy

Bisbee’s team uses Buddy Media for social media publishing, focusing more on creating awareness through word-of–mouth rather than outright solicitation. “What doesn’t work is DonorsChoose asking for money on Facebook,”says Bisbee. “But what does work is teachers and donors posting information to their friends and family,”  

Rather than going after donors directly, Bisbee’s team posts content directly onto the walls of its teachers and donors, with pictures from funded projects or milestones they helped reach.  Although Bisbee says there’s definitely value in directly engaging donors on social media, her small team doesn’t have the resources to do it yet. “We don’t track individuals on social,” says Bisbee. “If I had more staff we would probably do that more.” 

How to hire the right email marketer

For a team as small as her’s Bisbee says she had to be extremely selective about the person she hired to do her email marketing. To do that, her team hired three interns for a trial period of several months, evaluating them for the position of email marketer. Bisbee says she was looking for good writers who were very interested in tech and had some level of technical experience. “Even if they didn’t know how to code, maybe they had a WordPress blog, or had favorite websites they could evaluate,” says Bisbee. Ultimately, she says it was very important for the marketers to actually have a sense of what a good marketing email looked like. “We asked them, who does a good job emailing?” says Bisbee. “ And if they didn’t tell us, we knew they wouldn’t be right for the job”

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